Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer Point rises above wave-swept Pfeiffer Beach
1 mile round trip, 20 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved but narrow and pothole-littered road to trailhead, $12 parking fee required (no passes accepted)

The purple sands, sea arches, and flying surf of wild Pfeiffer Beach are tucked into a small gap in the rocky coastal cliffs that define much of California’s Big Sur. This extremely scenic beach- reached by a short, easy, and flat walk at the end of an uncomfortable drive from the region’s main town- is no secret and is a highly sought-after destination along this stretch of coast, but it is still worthy of a visit if you come at times when the crowds are quieter.

Anna and I visited Pfeiffer Beach during an October day trip to Big Sur. From the last southbound traffic light in Carmel at Rio Road, we followed US Highway 1 south for 27 miles into the Big Sur Valley; after passing the turnoff for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Highway 1 began a steady uphill climb. Part way through the uphill drive, we turned sharply right onto Sycamore Canyon Road, which was not well marked and dropped steeply away from Highway 1. Shortly after turning onto Sycamore Canyon Road, a sign indicated that Pfeiffer Beach was two miles ahead, reassuring us that we had made the correct turn. Sycamore Canyon Road was paved but very narrow as it descended a canyon towards the coast: in most places, the road was just a single lane accommodating two-way traffic with turnouts. As Pfeiffer Beach is a popular destination, this meant that the road was quite busy and had many tourist visitors unaccustomed to dealing with such roads. The road was also quite bumpy and had a number of huge potholes, especially as we approached the beach, so drive slowly for everyone’s sake. We paid at the entrance station (interestingly, no federal lands pass is valid here even though Pfeiffer Beach is on USFS land) and then parked at the closest of the two lots to the trailhead. On nice summer days at midday, both lots may fill and the narrow road leading to the trailhead can get congested; avoid visiting the beach at peak tourist times.

From the trailhead, the wide, short, and sandy trail led through the shade of a row of cypresses for about a hundred meters and then opened up to the beach. The views were immediately spectacular: rugged Pfeiffer Point rose to the southeast and a couple of seastacks, each punctuated by a sea arch, lined the beach. High waves swept in from the Pacific and sent spray soaring over 30 feet in the air as it crashed ashore; most spectacular were the bursts of seawater through one of the sea arches on the arrival of particularly large waves.

Beach below Pfeiffer Point
Pacific surf pounding Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach sea arch
Waves crashing through the arch
Sycamore Canyon Creek flowed into the sea here and cut the beach in two; the creek created a small, shallow pool in the middle of the beach. There isn’t as much to see on the far (eastern) side of the stream, as the beach on that side wraps around a crescent-shaped cove and terminates at the base of Pfeiffer Point. We first noticed the unique purple sands of Pfeiffer Beach in the streambed: the moving water created delicate patterns between the gray and the purple sands. As we started walking along the beach, we found the rich-hued purple sand everywhere. These violet streaks are eroded specks of the spessartite, a mineral found in the cliffs here that has been worn down by the pounding waves into manganese garnet sands.

Purple sand patterns at the mouth of Sycamore Creek
Purple sands
We walked northwest along the beach for about a half mile; the beach became much quieter as we went on, especially after we rounded a set of rocks that were at the tide line. Here, we had the purple sands of Pfeiffer Beach largely to ourselves; we also spotted more stalks of kelp and crab shells swept ashore. Once the sun descended below the clouds, we made our way back to the trailhead.

Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach is a lovely coastal walk. It’s probably too well-loved these days, so you may not want to schedule a visit to this beach at midday on a nice weekend; but if you’re visiting Big Sur at off times and don’t mind driving the unpleasant approach road and paying a fee, you’ll be able to appreciate the purple sands and magnificent cliffs that make Pfeiffer Beach so popular.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Vicente Flat

Redwoods above the Big Sur Coast
10 miles round trip, 2200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The sweeping coastal views and calming redwood forests of Vicente Flat combine to make this day hike along the Kirk Creek Trail one of the most satisfying one day outings along California’s Big Sur coast. The first half of the hike features ocean views from progressively higher heights while the second half delivers views of Cone Peak, Big Sur’s tallest coastal mountain, along with a small but enjoyable old growth redwood grove in Hare Canyon. Hikers looking for a shorter trip can turn around at the entrance to Hare Canyon for a 5-mile round trip with 1800 feet of elevation gain and still catch the best of the hike’s ocean views. While the elevation demands of this hike are merely moderate, the trail clings to precipitously steep mountain slopes at times and passes through brushy terrain infested with ticks, tarantulas, snakes, and poison oak, so wear pants and watch your step as you enjoy the hike’s big views.

I hiked to Vicente Flat via the Kirk Creek Trail on a sunny October Saturday, making the three-hour drive down from the Bay Area early in the morning. From the last southbound traffic light in Carmel at Rio Road, I followed US Highway 1 south for 55 miles past Lucia and Limekiln State Park to Kirk Creek Campground. I parked just off of Highway 1 at the entrance to Kirk Creek Campground; there is parking along the road for at least 20 or so cars. The trailhead was on the east side of the highway, across the entrance to the campground.

The first 2.5 miles of the hike consisted of a steady ascent along the mountainside facing the coast to reach the entrance of Hare Canyon. Leaving the trailhead, the trail initially paralleled the road as it climbed through chaparral and grassland, clinging to the hillsides above Highway 1. 

Kirk Creek Trail above Highway 1 and the Pacific
This initial stretch of trail was wide and well-maintained, a rarity for Big Sur paths- but unfortunately, the pleasant trail conditions here would not last. Switchbacks soon began to lift the trail uphill and as I rose above the trees lining the highway, views of the coast opened up to the north. Charred branches of bushes mixed in with the new, green vegetation was a reminder that this region (the entire hike, actually) had been burned just a year before by the 2020 Dolan Fire. At two thirds of a mile from the trailhead, the trail entered the Ventana Wilderness; this marked the end of the broad trail corridor. From here on, grasses, brush, and poison oak would alternately protrude into the trail until reaching Vicente Flat.

Entering the Ventana Wilderness
After entering the Ventana Wilderness, the trail stopped switchbacking uphill and began heading northwest along the mountainside, following the contours through gullies and across ridges. The views really began to open up as the coastal cliffs to the south emerged from behind the nearby hills.

Views of the Pacific
At 1.5 miles into the hike, the trail turned into redwood-shaded north-facing slope. The redwoods here were small and thin and had long burn scars running up their trunks- I was unsure whether these were from the previous year’s Dolan Fire or whether these scars predated that, as fires are a very common occurrence on the Big Sur coast. Here, the coast redwood is close to the very southern extent of its range: the southernmost naturally occurring redwoods are found just 15 miles further down along the Big Sur coast from here. The relative lushness of this gully was a welcome respite from the dried out grassy slopes that I had been hiking through earlier.

First redwood grove of the hike
Redwoods above the Pacific
Continuing from the redwood grove, I ascended progressively higher up the mountainside as I headed northwest, passing through a few more gullies, none of which were as lush as the previous redwood gully. Views continued expanding, with rugged mountains to both the north and the south dropping precipitously to the cerulean waters of the Pacific. The ocean waters were clear enough that I could see kelp forests floating beneath the surface of the waves.

Big Sur Coast north of Hare Canyon
The trail became more precipitous the higher that I ascended, with steep drop offs on the ocean side and a path that was at times perhaps just a foot wide. At 2.5 miles, the trail brought me to the entrance of Hare Canyon. Here, the trail headed northeast as it turned around a ridge; the views were stupendous. Not only did I still have all the coastal views that had accompanied me so far, but Cone Peak- the tallest peak directly rising from the ocean in the contiguous United States- appeared above the far end of Hare Canyon.

Big Sur Coast south of Kirk Creek
Cone Peak amidst the clouds
Turning into Hare Canyon, the trail continued traversing high grassy slopes for a bit but soon came to travel primarily through wooded- though still extremely steep- mountainsides. There were scattered redwood groves along the trail here, many with trees larger than the first grove; these trees also exhibited many burn scars, perhaps gained after Dolan Fire. At 3 miles from the trailhead, I passed Espinoza Camp, a small but dry campsite on the shoulder of a ridge with room for at least two groups to camp.
Soaring redwoods in Hare Canyon
Redwoods and the Pacific from Hare Canyon
After passing Espinoza Camp, the ascent leveled off and the trail undulated with a series of ups and downs for the remainder of the trip to Vicente Flat. Poison oak was very common here and was putting on a lovely display of fall color when I visited in October; the vivid colors helped me keep track of the poison oak around the trail and made avoiding the plant a little easier.
Poison oak was not the only surprise the brushy trail had in store for me: I ran into two tarantulas on my return journey on this stretch trail, each of which exceeded three inches in length. October is mating season for tarantulas, the time of year that California's mature male tarantulas- usually a few years old- hit the trails looking for the nest of a female tarantula that is down to procreate. Tarantulas are rare at other times of year but can be common in the drier California Coast Ranges in fall.

Trail tarantula
Although the trail generally stuck to forest in Hare Canyon, at times it passed through grassy slopes that provided open views over the forested canyon back towards the coast.

Hare Canyon
At four miles, the trail began a steady descent into Hare Canyon towards Vicente Flat. Cone Peak rose ahead of the trail while the canyon below was dotted with redwoods. The trail itself was quite challenging at times here: the Dolan Fire had resulted in copious deadfall in this area and I had to scramble over three-foot wide tree trunks and crawl under tree branches at various points. In some areas, the trail had washed away and been replaced by a one-boot wide loose dirt path; nothing was specifically dangerous, but hikers should watch their step.

Cone Peak rises above the redwoods of Hare Canyon
At five miles the trail made a final descent into the canyon. The terrain became gentler and the redwoods became larger until finally I arrived at the wooded creekside environs of Vicente Flat. A number of large, old-growth redwoods, including one tree that could be described as a redwood giant, filled the center of the grove, with numerous sizeable but smaller redwoods scattered through the rest of the flat. Groundcover was sparse in the grove and a picnic table had been installed near the base of the largest redwood. Backpackers had unfortunately chosen to pitch their tents directly in the most scenic part of the grove and thrown their gear in the goosepen of the largest redwood, so the scene was not quite as pristine as it might be on a quieter weekday.

Old growth redwoods of Vicente Flat
Soaring redwoods in Vicente Flat
The Kirk Creek Trail ended here at Vicente Flat. Hikers looking for more will find a junction with the Stone Ridge Trail and the Vicente Flat Trail across the creek; the Vicente Flat Trail continues up the canyon to join Cone Peak Road and is typically used as the access route for climbing Cone Peak from Highway 1. The most scenic stretch of redwoods, however, is in the main flat, so this is a good spot to turn around.

I encountered plenty of hikers on this day hike: many backpackers set up tent in Vicente Flat and there were dozens of day hikers that made it all the way to the Flat as well. However, with everyone spaced out over five miles of trail, there was still solitude at certain times. Arrive early at the trailhead to snag parking spots that are close to the trail.

The hike along the Kirk Creek Trail to Vicente Flat is a lovely day outing and combines incredible coast views with redwood forests, giving hikers a taste of two of the attributes that make Big Sur so special. While the trail is not terribly physically strenuous, the brushiness of the trail and the steepness of the terrain it traverses should be important considerations when deciding on doing this hike. If you can handle what the trail throws at you, you’ll be in for one of the best hiking experiences in Big Sur.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Sliding Sands

Kalu'Uoka'O'O and the Haleakala Crater
3.5 miles round trip, 900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate due to high elevation
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Haleakala National Park entrance fee required

Although Maui is well known for its lush, tropical coast, the heart of the island atop 10,023-foot Haleakala is a barren but dazzling landscape of multihued volcanic features. The Sliding Sands Trail is the crown jewel of Haleakala National Park, leading from the massive volcano’s road-accessible summit down into a spectacular crater dotted with perfectly formed cinder cones of all colors. The consistently open nature of this trail means that hikers can travel any distance along it and have a satisfying trip; however, it’s important to note that because the trail descends into the crater, hiking further along the trail means more uphill you’ll have to handle on the return trip. High altitude may make this hike challenging for many, especially as almost everyone is coming up from sea level.

The Haleakala summit sunrise has become an extremely sought-after sight on Maui. Haleakala translates to the House of the Sun in Hawaiian in local mythology is considered to be the place where the demigod Maui lassoed the sun to slow its journey across the sky. If you wish to see the sunrise or if you wish to enter Haleakala National Park before 7 AM, you’ll need to reserve a sunrise permit at; be sure to do this months in advance as spots typically fill up within the day that permits become available.

Anna and I hiked the Sliding Sands Trail during a December trip to Maui. We had initially intended to do a more extended hike along the trail that day but, rushing out of our hotel at 3:30 AM on our way to see the summit sunrise, I forgot to bring a backpack containing our lunches and my camera. Thus, rather than doing a more extended hike along the Sliding Sands Trail, we only went a short way down before to see the Kalu’Uoka’O’O cinder cone before turning back.

From Kahului, we followed the Hana Highway east from town for 3 miles and then turned right at the traffic light with the Haleakala Highway (Highway 37). We followed Haleakala Highway uphill along the volcano’s lower slopes for 8 miles and then turned left to stay on the Haleakala Highway (now Highway 377) after entering the town of Pukalani. After another 6 miles, we made another left turn to stay on the Haleakala Highway (now Highway 378) after passing Kula Lodge; we followed this road as it climbed aggressively through many switchbacks for another 19 miles, passing the park entrance and ending at the Haleakala Visitor Center. There is a large parking lot here that often fills up at sunrise, but typically starts to clear out within 20 minutes of the sun coming up, so come early but not too early.

The parking lot at the visitor center had already filled when we arrived, so we ended up watching the sun rise at the Kalahaku Overlook, which was at the end of the first switchback on the way back down the mountain. The sunrise was spectacular: slowly, we watched far-off Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island catch first light before rays fell on the rim of Haleakala Crater, gradually creeping down and illuminating the colorful wonderland of cinder cones in the crater itself. However, it was also spectacularly windy and cold: while we had prepared with plenty of clothes, packing winter coats on our trip to Maui, many other visitors were clearly underdressed for the weather.

Sunrise over the Mauna Loa and the Haleakala Crater from Kalahaku Overlook
After returning to the visitor center, we began our hike along the Sliding Sands Trail. From the visitor center, we followed the sidewalk that led along the south side of the parking lot; this sidewalk ended upon meeting a second, much smaller parking area for the Sliding Sands Trail. From here, a cinder-and-ash path paralleled a road and led south around a small prominence, which served as a welcome temporary windbreak. The trail quickly diverged from the road and soon led to a saddle above the Haleakala Crater with sweeping views into the crater below. This was a good spot to stop and take stock of the landscape we were about to enter: around ten cinder cones, each quite symmetric, dotted the crater floor below, with the great ridge of Hanakauhi rising across the crater and plains of lava and ash leading to Kaupo and Koolau Gaps, which break the crater rim. The intensely blue waters of the Pacific were visible through the gaps in the crater rim.

The colors of Sliding Sands Trail at Haleakala Crater
Leaving the rim of the crater, the trail descended gradually into the colorful ash-covered wonderland inside the crater. We followed the trail downhill for about 1.75 miles from the rim for a short round-trip hike of just 3.5 miles, with 900 feet of elevation gain on the return. As we had limited water and food due to me forgetting my pack at our hotel, we didn’t journey all the way to the crater floor, although I would have loved to do so. We stopped at the end of a switchback above the Kalu’Uoka’O’O cinder cone; while we didn’t make it far down enough to look directly into the cone, we could clearly make out the bright red streaks inside the rounded mouth of the cone from our stopping point.

Kalu'Uoka'O'O and the Haleakala Crater
View out Koolau Gap
While the gaping hole atop Haleakala is commonly referred to as the volcano’s crater, its geologic origin is actually erosive. Haleakala initially formed as a shield volcano like Mauna Loa on Big Island; after volcanic activity began to calm down as the Hawaii Hot Spot shifted away from Maui, deep stream valleys eroded on the northern and eastern flanks of the mountain. Rifting across the island in more recent centuries reignited a newer episode of volcanism on Maui, which has created the plethora of cinder cones that dot the island; lava flows from this newer volcanism filled the deep stream valleys, forming the lava plains running through today’s Koolau and Kaupo Gaps.

The Sliding Sands Trail continues far beyond where we turned around, visiting a wonderland of cinder cones and other volcanic features. Hikers who continue along the trail will pass by the cinder cone Pu’u O Maui on their way to the cluster of cinder cones by Ka Moa o Pele and Pu’u Nuae, where the Sliding Sands Trail meets the Halemau’u Trail. Hikers looking for a more comfortable backcountry experience can spend the night in one of the multiple cabins in Haleakala Crater and see the cinder cones painted by morning and evening light; reservations are essential. Hikers who do choose to go farther should just remember that since this trail starts high and descends, you will have to deal with a potentially strenuous climb on the return trip and that this return ascent will be more difficult due to the higher elevation. The round trip from the visitor center to the loop around Ka Moa o Pele is 12 miles with 2700 feet of elevation gain.

Hikers already in the summit area should make the drive over from the visitor center to Red Hill, the highest point on Haleakala, either before or after their hike on the Sliding Sands Trail. From the very highest point of this great volcano, there were sweeping 360-degree views of Maui; additionally, there were a handful of ahinahina silversword, a unique plant endemic to Haleakala, meaning it is naturally found nowhere else in the world. The silversword grows for about 50 years in its spiky, ball-like form before it finally blooms for a single brilliant season and dies.

Ahinahina silversword near Red Hill
I didn't get to fully explore the Sliding Sands Trail at Haleakala, but I was very struck by the stark landscape, vivid colors, and fantastical shapes of the short stretch that I did get to see. If my future vacations include a return to Maui, then I will almost certainly return to Haleakala to see the stretches of the Sliding Sands Trail that I did not see on this trip.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Halemau'u Rainbow Bridge

Halemau'u Rainbow Bridge and Haleakala Crater
2.5 miles round trip, 500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Haleakala National Park entrance fee required

As Maui’s Haleakala Volcano rises over 10000 feet from the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the lush tropical forests of its lower windward slopes transition to the barren rock and colorful cinder cones of its massive crater. The short hike along the Halemau’u Trail in Haleakala National Park to Rainbow Bridge, a spectacular ridgetop viewpoint, gives hikers a great overview of this transition zone and packs in some stunning views. The name can be slightly misleading, as there’s no arch of any sort here: Rainbow Bridge refers to a narrow stretch of ridge with views to both sides. The Halemau’u Trail extends beyond Rainbow Bridge, descending into Haleakala Crater to connect up with the Sliding Sands Trail that descends from the summit, but a traverse of the crater is likely too much for most casual hikers, who will find this easy hike to Rainbow Bridge to be sufficiently rewarding.

Anna and I hiked to Halemau’u Rainbow Bridge during a December trip to Maui. We had initially intended to do a more extended hike in Haleakala Crater that day, but after rushing out of our hotel at 3:30 AM on our way to see the summit sunrise, I realized that I had failed to bring a backpack containing our lunches and my camera. Thus, rather than doing a more extended hike along the Sliding Sands Trail, we chose to do two short excursions on the Halemau’u and the Sliding Sands Trails.

From Kahului, we followed the Hana Highway east from town for 3 miles and then turned right at the traffic light with the Haleakala Highway (Highway 37). We followed Haleakala Highway uphill along the volcano’s lower slopes for 8 miles and then turned left to stay on the Haleakala Highway (now Highway 377) after entering the town of Pukalani. After another 6 miles, we made another left turn to stay on the Haleakala Highway (now Highway 378) after passing Kula Lodge; we followed this road as it climbed aggressively through many switchbacks for another 16 miles, entering Haleakala National Park and then arriving at the Halemau’u Trailhead. The trailhead is well-marked and lies at the northeastern edge of a switchback, with a parking lot on the left side of the road. The road is extremely windy and gains a lot of elevation but it is paved the entire way; however, a few bridges along the way are only wide enough for one car so slow down to yield when approaching these bridges. Additionally, reservations are required to enter Haleakala National Park before 7 AM due to the intense popularity of the summit sunrise; if you’re not coming for the sunrise, wait until after 7 to enter the park.

The forests characteristic of the lower slopes of Haleakala had faded to brush by the time we reached the Halemau’u Trailhead, so we had good, open views of the island and the Pacific Ocean from the parking lot already. A nene- an endemic Hawaiian goose that rarely flies and inhabits the upper elevations of Haleakala- was hanging out in the parking lot, enjoying the view. From the trailhead, we followed the Halemau’u Trail from the far end of the parking lot. The trail traveled through high brush as it descended gradually while it headed northeast towards the rim of Haleakala Crater. After two-thirds of a mile hiking from the trailhead and about 200 feet of descent, we came to a junction with the trail from Hosmer Grove; we stayed right at the junction to stick to the Halemau’u Trail, which continued descending as it approached the rim of the crater.

After the junction, great views opened up to the north of the heavily forested windward side of Maui. The northeast side of the island catches moisture moving across the Pacific that stalls when it meets Haleakala: the result is over 100 inches of rainfall each year, with superlative years recording up to 400 inches of rain. As expected, there were some clouds playing with the mountains on the windward north slope of the mountain, so even though we could see many of the lush ridges on the upper slopes and the Pacific Ocean in the distance, we only caught occasional glimpses of the rainforests of Koolau Gap during rare cloud breaks.

Haleakala slopes
Lush slopes of Haleakala
About a hundred meters past the junction, the trail came to its first viewpoint of Haleakala Crater. A stunning panorama of multi-layered volcanic cliffs towering above a great sloping plain dotted with colorful cinder cones opened up. Hanakauhi, a massive peak that marked the northeast rim of the crater, rose majestically on the other side of the plain. A forested ridge jutted out below and ahead of us into the crater: we could see the Halemau’u Trail’s many switchbacks down the side of the ridge to the crater floor which, luckily, we would not have to traverse on that day. Unlike the view of the crater from further up the volcano at Red Hill, the view from the Halemau’u Trail was less barren and substantially more green: grasses covered the crater floor here, making for a lusher scene than the austere landscape of ash further up the mountain.

Hanakauhi rising over the Haleakala Crater
As we descended via switchbacks, we could feel the vegetation around us begin to transition: the brushy vegetation at the trailhead, on the leeward side of the mountain, was now being replaced by ferns and other moisture-loving plants on the windward side. After just over a mile of hiking and nearly 500 feet descent from the trailhead, we came to the Rainbow Bridge stretch of the hike, where the trail followed the narrow crest of a fin-like ridge with spectacular views off both sides. This stretch of trail was thrilling without actually being dangerous. The views of the crater rim walls on our side of the crater were more impressive here as we were essentially within the crater at that point.

Halemau'u Rainbow Bridge
While some hikers may choose to head back from here, a more natural and satisfying turnaround point is just a little further down, at the prow of the fin-like ridge. We continued following the trail, which hugged the north side of the ridge with constant spectacular views down towards Koolau Gap. About a hundred meters further along, we came to the end of the ridge, where the trail made a 360-degree turn and wrapped around to the other side of the ridge to begin its long, switchbacking descent to the crater floor. A short spur trail at this turn led to a small promontory at the very end of the ridge; we walked out to this high point, which provided the most spectacular view of the hike. Hanakauhi rose across the plains of Haleakala Crater from us, while the sloping crater floor led up towards the lava-covered heart of the volcano below Red Hill. Holua Cabin was the only visible sign of human presence here, a lone hut dwarfed by volcanic cliffs and the immensity of the shield volcano landscape around it.

Rim of Haleakala Crater
This was an incredible viewpoint from which to study the ecological transition zones on Haleakala: a natural textbook was open before us. To the right of the view, we could see the alpine summit of Haleakala, where winters are cold, snow falls occasionally, and the ground is dominated by ash from the cinder cones. The Pu’u O Maui and Ka Moa o Pele cinder cones were among the most prominent with their high and agreeably asymmetric forms. From the cinder cones, black lava flows led downslope: the upper stretches of the lava flows looked entirely desolate, but at a certain point grasses began appearing and then shrubs. As the crater opened into Koolau Gap, the bushes gradually transitioned into rain forest. The lower slopes of the volcano were not visible below the clouds, but we would experience it as a waterfall-dotted rainforest later on our drive to Hana.

Looking up the Haleakala Crater to the cinder cones
Hiking the first stretch of the Halemau’u Trail was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and a must-do on Maui. I’ll certainly have to return to Haleakala to visit the spectacular crater floor in the future.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Cape Hanamanioa

Waves break against the basalt coastline of Maui near Cape Hanamanioa
3.5 miles round trip, 75 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, flat but some very rocky terrain
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead, no parking fee necessary

At Maui's Cape Hanamanioa, on the southwestern corner of Haleakala, the crashing waves of the Pacific meet rugged lava flows in a dramatic landscape of basalt cliffs, cinder cones, and ancient Hawaiian villages. The half day hike to reach this corner of the island is a good place to experience an easily accessible stretch of Maui's spectacular coastline with just a fraction of the crowds found at the nearby resorts. Although this is a fairly flat coastal hike, it is important to realize that this is still a hike: the trail surfaces are very rough and rocky while traversing the lava flows, so bring your hiking boots. Also, the exposed landscape at the cape makes high winds quite common here.

Anna and I hiked to Cape Hanamanioa during our New Year's trip to Maui. The trailhead is a short and easy drive from Kahului and is especially close to the resort towns of Kihei and Wailea. From Kahului, we followed Highway 311 south; after passing the turnoff for Kihei Rd, Highway 311 became the Piilani Highway and we continued following it past the the town of Kihei. The Piilani Highway ended at a T-intersection with the Wailea Alanui Drive in Wailea; we turned left here to head south. The road narrowed as it approached Makena Beach and then lost the yellow dividing line shortly after passing Makena Beach. The road narrowed to a single lane with pullouts as it followed a scenic stretch of coast and then crossed a barren lava flow. After passing a monument to the explorer La Perouse, the road turned to the right and the pavement ended, transitioning to rough rock as it reached a parking area by the water: this was the trailhead for both the Hoapili Trail and the Cape Hanamanioa Trail.

We started off the hike by following the Hoapili Trail to the southeast from the parking area, crossing onto the lava flow as the trail followed the coast. This was a striking and extraordinary trail and there were incredible views of the azure ocean, the dark and contorted forms of frozen lava, and colorful cinder cones dotting the slopes of a broad-sloped form of Haleakala, Maui's massive shield volcano. The lava flow that we hiked on is the newest land on Maui: cinder cones erupted on the southwest slopes of Haleakala in 1790, the last period of active volcanism on the island, forming this field of rough, sharp rock. Despite traveling through unforgiving terrain, the trail here was reasonably well-maintained, with a gravel surface smoothing out the rough lava surface. Shortly after beginning the hike, we passed by a set of low rock walls to our left. These walls mark the site of a heiau, a Hawaiian temple. The area along La Perouse Bay was once a native Hawaiian village- remnants of residential areas, graves, and this heiau are collectively part of this archaeological site. Please don't disturb these rock structures, as they're both historically important and sacred to the Hawaiian people!

Heiau and cinder cone
The trail remained close to the rugged, rocky basalt shoreline of La Perouse Bay for the first third of a mile of the hike, at one point passing a small basalt arch that becomes a blowhole at high tide. Waves swept off the Pacific, constantly battering the volcanic rock of the coast. In the distance, we could see the high lava bluffs of Cape Hanamanioa, our destination, rising above the ocean.

Basalt arch
Basalt coastline of La Perouse Bay
One-third of a mile from the trailhead, the trail left the rocky lava flow and entered the shade of a forest of kiawe trees. Over approximately the next half mile, the trail hugged the coastline while traveling under these trees, which provided a welcome respite from the hot sun. Here, the underlying basalt of the lava flow had been covered with loose, washed-up pieces of bleached coral, which in turn provided enough soil for kiawe trees to take root. While the trees helped make the scenery quite nice here, kiawe trees are actually not native to Hawaii: they're a form of mesquite bush from the Americas that European explorers brought to the islands in the nineteenth century that has since taken root in many places.

La Perouse Bay coast
Basalt coastline of La Perouse Bay
The first stretch of the hike to Cape Hanamanioa and the Hoapili Trail together follow the Kings Highway, a footpath around the island of Maui connecting the many ahupua'a, which were watershed-delineated societal units in ancient Hawaii. The Kings Highway is so named because it was established by Piilani, a king who united Maui under his rule in the sixteenth century and ordered the construction of the road. Most of the highway has since fallen into disuse or been built over; this section of the footpath is known as the Hoapili Trail as it was reconstructed during the administration of Hoapili, a governor of Maui during the nineteenth century. Hoapili was a close confidant of King Kamehameha I, who united the Hawaiian Islands in a single kingdom and was a prominent early convert to Christianity among Hawaiian royalty. The ancient trail and the many ruins associated with a village along La Perouse Bay here were now becoming overgrown with the branches of kiawe trees.

Hoapili Trail
Looking east across the azure sea, we could see the broad, sloping form of island of Kahoolawe. Kahoolawe is the smallest of the eight main Hawaiian Islands; it is also the only uninhabited island today. Like all the other Hawaiian Islands, Kahoolawe is formed by a shield volcano; however, it lacks the lushness of any other islands or even any fresh water altogether as it lies entirely within the rainshadow of Haleakala. This lack of water, combined with decades of its status as a target practice zone for the US military, explains Kahoolawe's unpopulated status today.

View to the island of Kahoolawe
At 0.8 miles into the hike, the kiawe forest abruptly ended and we found ourselves back on the rough terrain of a lava flow. There were more native Hawaiian stone structures here, just meters from the ocean. Here, the Cape Hanamanioa Trail split from the Hoapili Trail at an unsigned junction. The Hoapili Trail passed through a set of stone walls and headed off to the left and inland, crossing the vast lava flows ahead to the east, while the Cape Hanamanioa Trail paralleled the coast here as it also began a journey across the black lava flow. 

Hawaiian ruins and view of Cape Hanamanioa
At just over one mile into the hike, the trail briefly passed through a small grove of kiawe trees by the coast in these vast fields of lava. Here, we spotted a herd of feral goats. These feral goats are not native to Hawaii- after all, no mammals besides hoary bats inhabited these islands before the arrival of Polynesian seafarers about 1500 years ago- and were introduced by early European explorers who hoped to populate the islands with goats as a food source. Set loose on islands with no predators, the invasive feral goat population exploded and has since become problematic, as the goats are severely damaging to native vegetation. While culls to control the population are now common, complete removal of the feral goats is a controversial topic in Hawaii.

Feral goats
Leaving this final patch of trees, the trail made a brief uphill climb (the only substantial elevation gain on this hike) to reach the top of a vast lava flow. The final two-thirds of a mile of this hike was across this barren, bizarre field of broken basalt out to Cape Hanamanioa, which was at the very edge of the lava flow. It was interesting to see the various shapes that lava cooled into, but this stretch of the hike was also quite challenging as the trail itself was littered with irregularly shaped and frequently sharp rocks; hiking boots are a must here, as the flip-flops that many tourists wear around Maui would be torn to shreds here. This made the hike more challenging than its flat profile would suggest. Intense winds whipping off the Pacific Ocean also made this stretch of the trail challenging, winds made worse by pelting sands of eroded lava. This was a harsh and austere landscape, one which most people will not want to linger around.

The trail across the lava flow paralleled the coast here, but it was far enough removed from the actual shoreline- which was constantly about 50 to 100 meters away- that there were no real ocean views to speak of. Instead, we found impressive views towards the sloping form of Haleakala when we looked back to the northeast. In fact, we could see the entire volcano from ocean to summit here: the white buildings of the Haleakala Observatory near the summit stood atop the sloping, mound-like form of the mountain. The long southwest ridge of the mountain led from La Perouse Bay up to the top of Haleakala here. The lower slopes of the volcano were covered with dry forest and intermittently broken by cinder cones and lava flows, while the middle elevations of the mountain alternated between denser and more verdant forests and open grassland. Barren volcanic rock covered the highest elevations.

Haleakala rising over the lava flows at Cape Hanamanioa
The low elevation cinder cones and lava flows were one of the most remarkable parts of the view here. The clear sight lines from the lava flow that we hiked on provided a great view of Kalua o Lapa, a tiny cinder cone nearby from which emanated an expanse of dark, cooled lava. This extraordinary example of a cinder cone and its associated lava flow is actually the youngest eruption on Maui: this cinder cone was probably formed by eruptions around 1790. Visitors who have traveled to Big Island and seen the smooth pahoehoe lava flows there might be puzzled as to why the cooled lava in southwest Maui has instead taken on such rough shapes. This is a'a lava: it is more silicic than the smooth pahoehoe lava and thus had higher viscosity when flowing downhill from its erupting vent, resulting in an uneven surface littered with sharp lava fragments. The higher ratio of a'a lava found on Maui and the higher ratio of pahoehoe on Big Island reflect the stages of shield volcano life of each island's volcanoes: Kiluaea and Mauna Loa on Big Island are fed directly by low silica-content magma from the Hawaii Hot Spot, while these cinder cones on Maui are a result of rifting that brings to the surface older magma which has incorporated more silica content by melting surrounding crust.

Cinder cone on the slopes of Haleakala
At 1.4 miles from the trailhead, the trail along the lava flow finally returned to the coast. Views to the north and west from the coast were very impressive: in addition to seeing Kahoolawe across from us, I could make out the form of tiny (and very pretty!) Molokini Crater, with the sloping shield volcano of Lanai and the rugged, perpetually cloud-capped forms of the West Maui Mountains in the distance.

Lanai, Molokini, and the West Maui Mountains
After a short stretch atop the coastal lava bluffs, the trail turned slightly more inland for the final leg of the hike to Cape Hanamanioa. Here, the wind became ever stronger as we approached the far end of the lava flow, escalating to a full-on gale when I came to a junction at 1.6 miles from the trailhead. Here, the right fork led up to a local high point, while the left fork continued towards the edge of the cape: while the right fork was worth visiting, those hoping to catch a glimpse of the cape and then escape from the winds should continue on the left fork. This trail wrapped around to the left and descended sightly before coming to another spur on the right, which led out to Hanamanioa Light. We followed this trail out to the very edge of the cape.

While Hanamanioa Light is itself unnoteworthy, being nothing more than a pole with a light bulb affixed to it, the view from this point was raw and awesome. Here, massive waves swept off the Pacific and collided with the cliffs of the lava flow, sending spray soaring into the air. We caught glimpses of the southern coast of Maui, but what we could see was quite similar to what we had just experienced: a lava flow coastline with basalt battered by the elements. A beach littered with bleached coral lay just east of the cape and provided some contrast with the azures and blues of the ocean and the darkness of the basalt.

Waves pound Cape Hanamanioa
The trail continued from the light all the way down to the bleached coral beach, but we chose to turn back at the light as the wind was becoming intolerable. We picked our way through the rough basalt on our way back across the flow, wondering why we had chosen to spend our Maui vacation hiking on such rough terrain but at the same time marveling that we had managed to so thoroughly escape the crowds that are omniprescent at Wailea and Makena just a stone's throw away. This is not a relaxing hike that many might associate with a coastal Maui experience, but the scenery and variety of things to see on the way to Cape Hanamanioa make it a rewarding experience.